The familiar orange hued light spread out in fanned patterns across the hollow pine duff slowly urging the sub-alpine lodge pole forest into dawn. After a long summer of wildfires and heat in the high Rockies the turn toward fall had finally begun.
An early morning escape from the heat of the plains had boot hitting trail before the morning’s caffeine had fully kicked in. Perpetually 20 feet up trail from her hiking partners, Baker was clearly not having the same problem. Every now and then she would pause from her investigation of the night’s lingering scent and look back at us with cocked head as if to say, “Come on guys. We have miles to cover!”
Baker, a one year old “brown and white mutt” (highly sought after breed), spent the early part of her young life running around the Navajo Nation in the sun scorched four corners region near Ship Rock, New Mexico. Having only been a part of our outfit for the better part of two weeks, to our knowledge, this was the little dog’s first venture into the high country.
The trail to Arapahoe Pass is situated on the eastern side of Colorado’s Indian Peaks Wilderness. Beginning at around 10,000 feet a narrow track climbs gradually up to tree line and on to the crest of the Continental Divide at just under 12,000 feet.
Pausing briefly at the edge of the pines, Baker’s desert instinct stopped her at the small trickle of a clear running stream. She dipped her tongue in the icy water and drank. No water above tree line except what we carry.
Noise under foot and paw changed from the soft crunch of dry pine duff to the rattle of scree as we left the coolness of the pines and entered the alpine world of blazing aspens and hurried, squeaking Pikas beginning their frantic winter stockpiling. The fall leaves had begun their silent fiery display and cast a visible golden glow over the rocky path.
Climbing swiftly over the stone riprap, Baker moved upwards without hesitation as if she had done this many times before. Like her people she seemed to lust for the lofty open air of the high meadows and peaks beyond.
With no pika or marmot hole left un-sniffed, the upward pitch of the trail steepened in one final, short push to the divide. A cool fall breeze previously blocked by a rocky ridge immediately ruffled the fur and hair of our small party joining with the expansive western view in a sort of exhilarating reminder that fall had come to our part of the world with winter quick on its heels.
Sheltering behind a large lichen covered boulder, Baker did her best to decode this new phenomenon of cold air blowing through her brown and white coat. Moments later in an apparent attempt to out run the wind she tore off, running crazy loops around the high meadow hurdling rock and bush finally coming to a rest atop the boulder where she started. With paws planted against the wind, ears plastered back and tail blowing wildly like a wind sock, Baker surveyed the huge view in front of her seemingly accepting this new mountain landscape to which she is now so accustomed. With that out of the way, she promptly hopped off the rock, curled up on a backpack and went instantly to sleep.
After a leisurely stay on the pass unhurried by summer storms we ate the last of our food and headed down the hill, well-rested mutt leading the way. With the promise of cold beverages waiting at the truck we motored down the pass pausing occasionally to take in the still fall afternoon knowing the brevity of this type of meteorological stability ahead of the snows.
Back at the trailhead sitting on the tail gate, Baker sprawled out at our feet, we watched as a late afternoon wind began to loose a small aspen grove of its leaves. A frantic chipmunk charged by, feet from Baker’s closed eyes not provoking the slightest response.
“Baker, hop up girl.” With evening creeping in we coaxed the tired mutt into her spot in the truck. Pulling away from the trailhead the melancholy that always comes with late fall dusk in the mountains gave way to anticipation of the coming snows and more adventures with Baker breaking trail ahead of us.